In-Depth

Manage Your Carbon Footprint

The growing importance of energy efficiency gives IT a leadership role in the enterprise.

Do you know the size of your organization's carbon footprint? How about the amount of kilowatts your computers use on a daily basis? If you don't know these stats right now, there's a good chance you'll have to in the near future. It's good business today, and it's going to be a big part of tomorrow's regulatory environment. Most importantly, IT will be right at the center.

The European community is much further along than the United States in terms of integrating ecological considerations into daily life. It's pursuing regulation on the ecologically friendly design of energy-using products (EuPs) through Directive 2005/32/EC. This directive will require manufacturers to calculate the energy used to produce, transport, sell, use and dispose of almost all products. It will also require manufacturers to go back to the energy used when extracting the raw materials needed to make its product, including all subassemblies and components.

Don't think you're immune if you don't do business in the European Union. There are also proposals in the United States to provide each and every company with a carbon allocation. Exceeding this allocation will result in fines and other penalties. You can also expect a developing market for trading carbon credits. This is likely to be at least two years behind the EuP, but will almost certainly happen eventually. In the near term, California will soon require some industries to disclose carbon information to implement its statewide cap on greenhouse gas emissions.

The need for greater understanding doesn't stop at carbon emissions. Because of the tie-in among carbon emissions, greenhouse gases and global warming, it gets the most attention today. However, there's both good public relations and good business in other sustainable practices like conserving electrical power, recycling and hazardous waste disposal.

There's not a direct relationship between carbon footprint and energy consumption, but it's close enough for IT to generally reduce carbon output by reducing energy use. In New England, for example, much of the power comes from nuclear plants and Hydro Quebec. These are both relatively clean from a carbon standpoint. Power from renewable sources like hydroelectric plants and wind farms generally results in little or no carbon footprint.

Other parts of the country obtain power primarily from coal- or oil-burning plants, and have a heavier carbon component to their power. Nevertheless, until it becomes possible to more precisely track the carbon emissions of all of our processes, we'll look at energy use as our measuring stick in determining an enterprise carbon footprint.

The carbon-footprint measurement also accounts for all processes and purchases within an organization. If you buy a new server, you also get the carbon it took to manufacture and deliver that server. According to a Gartner Inc. study, the carbon emitted before you even hook up the computer can be as much as 80 percent of the energy used by the system.

So the carbon footprint is the electricity you use but also much more than that. Carbon emission applies to the manufacturing processes that use energy, chemicals or petroleum products for raw materials. While it does not directly affect IT, you'll no doubt have to track and measure the latter sometime in the future.

The Impact on IT
There are other forces at work in the carbon debate. Not many of us see carbon emissions in a data center's daily activities -- certainly not carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels. However, we do see lots of lights on and lots of servers running. That need for power to drive data centers has driven some of the largest tech companies, like Google Inc. and Amazon.com Inc., to locate new data centers in areas of the country where power is both cheap and plentiful.

It's incumbent upon IT to take a leadership role in measuring, monitoring and reducing an organization's carbon footprint. Why should this role fall upon IT? From a defensive standpoint, IT is an attractive target for environmental activists and others driving conservation efforts and financial savings. It may not be clear how much power it takes to drive a manufacturing plant, but you can make a good estimate of the power requirements of 5,000 servers. Because IT has a reputation of being a clean operation, many would be unpleasantly surprised by its contribution to greenhouse gasses.

Those in a position to offer objections see this as well. The days of enclosing the server room with glass walls for all to see are over. Today it's far too easy for even a casual observer to see a data center covering several acres as a massive energy drain, rather than a symbol of power and competence.

IT also remains the aggregator of data for the enterprise. Carbon usage will be just another collection of data to manage and report on. Of course, as those reports grow in importance and start to become tracked as budget items, other executives will start asking IT about ways to improve the performance of their departments. IT in many organizations will be leading the charge on energy use in general while also getting its own house together.

So what's an IT manager or CIO to do? You ignore green issues at your peril. It may not be a priority in your organization, at least at the moment, but you should be ready for the time it does become one. Here's where you get started.

Energy Awareness
The first step in establishing a plan to monitor and manage energy and carbon usage in the enterprise is to improve overall awareness in energy use, available technologies and best practices. Energy awareness among IT managers varies greatly, according to a recent study by industry analyst Forrester Research Inc. Forrester surveyed 124 procurement and operations professionals in enterprise IT organizations in North America and Europe. It noted that in general, less than a quarter of those companies currently included green considerations in their purchasing decisions.

Awareness may not be universal, but it's growing. Forrester found that around half of the respondents thought green considerations were growing in importance, with more than a quarter saying that it was very important. Still, awareness doesn't necessarily translate into action. The survey also found that only 20 percent to 30 percent of the respondents factor green considerations into their IT purchase decisions. "Awareness and especially action are still in their early stages. But the growth is there, driven by both public perception and real business needs," says Forrester Senior Vice President Christopher Mines.

In most cases, European companies seem to be a few percentage points ahead of their U.S. counterparts in both awareness and practice, but the general conclusion still holds: As awareness grows, so too will action.

In discussing energy awareness with a variety of IT managers and executives, responses tend to mirror those found in Forrester's more formal study. They were all over the map, ranging from no awareness or interest to a high level of knowledge and some action. However, it's telling that many didn't want their names or company names used. That may be due to insecurity about their own views, or the views of their organization.

Beyond IT
IT has several roles to play in managing and monitoring the carbon footprint of the enterprise, even in areas with little IT impact. First, carbon will likely be tracked and aggregated by information systems. This is an enterprise-wide role where data is gathered, stored and analyzed, with the results presented to management for action -- a traditional IT function.

Second, much of the energy usage accounting for an enterprise's carbon footprint will come from running computers. Functional divisions will look to IT to provide guidance on how to use desktop PCs and departmental servers in a more energy-efficient way. Even the manufacturing floor could approach IT for advice on better utilizing network gear and data-acquisition devices.

A good deal of that is also the business of IT. The enterprise needs accurate information, trend spotting and what-if analysis based on data. To make the entire organization cognizant of the carbon footprint related to any decision, you may want a carbon charge-back mechanism. For example, if a group needed a server to run a specific application, you could charge the carbon footprint of that server back to that group. Each department would have a carbon allocation managed like its budget. This isn't so far-fetched, given government efforts to allocate carbon quotas to individual companies.

Purchase & Measure
The only way of knowing how much you can reduce your energy consumption and overall carbon footprint is to begin measuring the energy you're using today. If you see that figure at all today, it's likely only as a monthly electric bill allocated to the fixed costs of your budget.

You need more information, and getting it can be difficult. Start with your vendors to get power consumption stats for servers and other computers, network equipment, telephone switches and other electrical hardware. Work with facilities people to look at power draw in order to confirm vendor data. Also, ask vendors to provide a value that represents the carbon footprint of the manufacturing process. If they can't provide it, look to competitive vendors for comparative data.

You can use that information to calculate your carbon footprint. Carbon Footprint Ltd. (www.carbonfootprint.com) provides an online calculator geared toward personal carbon use, but the company also provides commercial services for businesses. At the very least, it can give you an idea of the types of energy use and activities that go into calculating the footprint.

Your goal is to provide a baseline for measuring and ultimately reducing your enterprise's carbon footprint. Of course, avoiding all carbon emissions will be almost impossible. In this case, carbon offsetting plays a vital role. You can purchase renewable power, such as wind, hydro or solar, since these don't emit carbon into the atmosphere. Odd as it may seem, you can offset carbon emissions through activities like planting trees, because they absorb carbon.

Seeking Help
Technology suppliers are putting significant resources into burnishing their green credentials. Most computer component vendors have supported energy efficiency for several years, and they're starting to invest in more efficient manufacturing technologies and business practices.

With energy-efficient products, vendors also offer strategies and best practices for using their products. In part, they're leveraging their own experiences as they improve their own operations. They're also setting up labs to determine what kinds of configurations work best in data centers.

Help can also come from software vendors. According to Paul Rochester, CEO of asset-management software vendor PS'Soft, the role of asset management is to "manage the economic opportunities and consequences of asset acquisition and use." That includes energy use and carbon emissions, he says. In the future, PS'Soft is looking at including features like a carbon charge-back mechanism and analytical tools for managing and reducing energy use.

Oddly enough, vendors are often reticent about communicating their green initiatives with their customers. In the Forrester survey, only around one-third of the respondents claimed to be familiar with their technology vendors' green initiatives. Part of that is driven by a widespread perception that saving energy is bound to cost more money. In some cases that's true, but in other cases it's possible to make a better business case with more energy-efficient technologies, even if the initial cost is higher.

Sometimes word on initiatives simply doesn't reach everyone in the company. It could be poor communication or a lack of training. You may have to draw such information out of your vendor's sales force. Your preparations for vendor negotiations should include an energy checklist. Insist on answers before signing a contract.

A Plan for Action
There are side effects to measuring and managing carbon use. At a recent Climate Savers Computing Initiative press conference, Google declined to provide hard data about its carbon usage, despite its public portrayal of energy conservation. The reason for Google's reticence is that, based on carbon emissions, a competitor could reverse-engineer the data to determine the number of servers Google is running. In the highly competitive search business, this is a closely guarded secret.

Even if your company's efforts in energy efficiency and carbon usage can't be fully open for the world to see, it still represents an important emerging strategy in IT. We've been trained to think of the electric bill as a fixed cost essential to keeping the doors open. If we can influence that cost through smarter purchases and better practices, we're directly saving money. PS'Soft's Rochester notes that the power cost of operating servers exceeds their depreciation cost, making it a significant ongoing expense.

You'll provide enormous flexibility to an enterprise by managing energy use and carbon footprint -- and don't discount the public relations benefits.

There are a few smart things you can do right away. Virtualized servers reduce the total hardware requirement, which saves a good chunk of energy immediately. If you're not rack-mounting then you're probably leaving some savings on the table. Energy Star 4.0, which went into effect last month, calls for 80 percent-efficient power supplies and lower idle-wattage ratings than previously required. Dell Inc., for example, recently released servers, desktops and notebooks engineered to draw about one-third less power.

Thinking of energy-and carbon output-as an asset to be managed is perhaps the best approach to building a comprehensive plan. While no asset-management vendors support that today, don't be surprised to see such features in the near future, according to Rochester. That means identify, measure, allocate and manage on an ongoing basis.

Energy use and carbon emissions also represent a unique opportunity for IT to provide leadership for the enterprise as a whole. That leadership is clear in an IT-focused enterprise like Google, but it also applies to any business in any industry. IT can bring real benefits to the enterprise that go well beyond the "keep-the-lights-on" role to which some shops have been relegated.

To gain traction, sustainable practices must include a sound business strategy. If you sell a strategy as anything else, you won't get executive support and commitment. It looks like there's ample potential for real savings, and perhaps even competitive benefits. Leading-edge organizations are already in the process of devising and implementing strategies. Everyone else will have to get on board once the regulatory requirements become clearer.

It's too early to say whether or not a strategy of tracking and reducing carbon use will substantially improve an organization's bottom line or make a difference in the world in general. One thing is sure, however: It's not a fad that will disappear tomorrow. Thanks to an almost universal and growing awareness of environmental issues, coupled with growing regulatory requirements, concepts such as carbon footprint, energy efficiency and other sustainable programs will almost certainly grow substantially. The role of IT in support of these factors will also expand in the coming years.

More Information

You can see a copy of Directive 2005/32/EC, which will require manufacturers to calculate the energy used to produce, transport, sell, use and dispose of almost all products, here (PDF).
comments powered by Disqus

Reader Comments:

Fri, Nov 16, 2007 Anonymous Anonymous

Many excellent ideas regarding reducing an organization's

Add Your Comment Now:

Your Name:(optional)
Your Email:(optional)
Your Location:(optional)
Comment:
Please type the letters/numbers you see above

Redmond Tech Watch

Sign up for our newsletter.

I agree to this site's Privacy Policy.